Leif Arntzen Explains His Brilliant New Album, with a Release Show at Nublu on May 25
You typically don’t expect someone who’s been been a presence in the New York jazz scene since 1985 to wait until now to make the best album of his career. But not only is Leif Arntzen’s new album Continuous Break a career high-water mark, it’s also one of this year’s best. The brilliantly individualistic trumpeter plays the album release show this Saturday, May 25 at Nublu at around 10 with the players on it: guitarist Ryan Blotnick, keyboardist Landon Knoblock, bassist Michael Bates and drummer Jeff Davis. It’s an intimate space and the band hasn’t played in awhile, so early arrival is advised. Arntzen graciously took some time away from rehearsals and pre-concert logistics to answer a few questions:
Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: In my opinion, the new album is your best ever. Do you agree? It’s definitely your most eclectic…
Leif Arntzen: This record was the hardest I’ve ever done, but at the same time I felt the most at home with the process. I didm’t feel any limitations to play anything in particular or stick to one sound or musical direction. Anything we played became fair game, and that created a lot of intensity from all of us, to make whatever we played count for something. It was our special moment in time, and we played that way. I think we got what we were looking for.
LCC: I understand all the tracks are live, continuous takes, oldschool style. Is that true?
LA: Yes, it was live off the floor crowded in a small studio playing next to each other. There was a lot of sonic bleed, so overdubs were not an option.
LCC: I also understand that the tunes came together in an unusual way, in bits and pieces rather than either fully formed compositions or flat-out jams. Can you explain that?
LA: When everyone is so capable of so many things, of playing anything, for me it seemed more important to give the group simple ideas that made each of us have to dig…for something that brings us together, moves us forward. It was like we each showed up with our paintboxes, but only one big canvas to lay it down. I tried to simplify the starting point with simple melodies as much as possible…I think that gave us a wider horizon.
LCC: On the new album, it seems to me that you’ve thrashed a bunch of defiantly individualistic, outside-thinking guys into shape. Or is this them jumping at the opportunity to play lyrical, tuneful, memorable, composed or at least semi-composed music?
LA: As a horn player, I want to clear a way forward somehow through all the sound. I want to be playing outside too…but if there isn’t a melodic and rhythmic home, then being outside loses its meaning. I don’t have the luxury of playing more than one note at a time, so I have to imagine whatever I can to make my choices meaningful. I think everyone in the band is doing that in their own way, in their own voices. Maybe that’s why the music sounds more composed than it actually is.
LCC: Obviously there’s all kinds of improvisation on the album. I usually can pick up on where people are putting their own personalities, but this one is hard to figure out. For example, on your version of My Ideal, I love how Jeff adds an edgy contrast with his brushes against the lyrical gentleness of the melody line. His idea or yours?
LA: That’s Jeff. He has such a voice. He comes up with colors and shapes in the strangest ways…that made it easy for me to just play with the time and space…because I felt like that was all I needed to do to get something beautiful. It’s easy when all of us are after the same thing.
LCC: One of my favorite tracks is Tired, a laid-back funk groove that hits a big, explosive pastoral crescendo on the chorus. Are you into the Americana jazz thing that’s steamrolling these days, Bryan & the Aardvarks, Jeremy Udden, Bill Frisell?
LA: I really admire Bill’s version of Shenandoah on one of his recent albums. I love American classic melodies, folk and country music storytelling…I loved the Gil Evans Orchestra when they hit a big sonic full band stride. My son Miles [the brilliant drummer in Antibalas and leader of Emefe] wrote a bass line and guitar riff inspired by his love of Nigerian Afrobeat and American funk…He called it Tired. When I heard the line, I heard so much of deep America in it, jazz rock pioneers, funk masters and delta blues, and came up with the melody….and so we just took it to our own place.
LCC: Another one I like a lot is The Call, where you take what could be a totally generic, lickety-split swing shuffle and introduce all those conversations, and good cop/bad cop dynamics, and rhythmic push-pull even though the bass is always holding the center Was that planned?
LA: The Call is not planned, and intended to allow us to go anywhere…it’s fast and we each just hitch aboard and see where we wind up, try to get there and back in one piece, together.
LCC: I hope you can forgive me for having discovered you not from your original music but from your Channeling Chet project. I never got to see Chet Baker in concert, so seeing you do his music – which seemed to me to be as close to channeling as anyone can get – brought me full circle with it in a sense. I think that speaks for a lot of other listeners. Looking back, how did that impact your career? By exposing you to a lot of people who might not have discovered you otherwise…or did it become a millstone, you being associated so closely with Baker’s work instead of your own compositions?
LA: I grew up listening to my dad’s Louis Armstrong recordings, and he was my favorite. After Louis it was Miles and Freddie and Coltrane. Chet came along much later in my own experience. It happened after singing a cameo in a New York show, where I sang and played Days Of Wine And Roses as a band feature while the name stars took a break. The New York writers wrote about it, with comparisons to Chet. When that happened I went back to better understand his music and playing. That’s when I became a diehard Chet fan. Eventually I paid homage to him in my own way on the Channeling Chet recording. His sound production adn technique were really something else, such a beautiful melodist. For awhile there it seemed like the Chet thing overshadowed a little, but mostly I didn’t worry about it.
LCC: You have a rep as a purist. What’s up with the Wurly? Did you write this stuff with electric rather than acoustic piano in mind? Or just the confidence that Landon Knobloch wouldn’t clutter the songs with it?
LA: I’ve been thinking more electric for some time. I grew up with rock, I like the Wurly, a Wurly was handy, and Landon just sounds great on it, gets a real swirly thing going on, and especially with Ryan too…Rock is a part of what this band is about, and I feel at home.
LCC: On the new album, as far as influences are concerned, I definitely hear Miles as far as space and pacing is concerned, and Freddie Hubbard as far as perfect articulation and weightlessness of the notes. Am I on to something or not? What other trumpeters inspire you these days?
LA: Miles recordings have been a constant for me in my life. In terms of the horn, Miles and Freddie pioneered the sound of the horn, probably the biggest influence for me. But I can’t set aside Kenny Dorham, Chet, and of course Louis Armstrong perhaps most of all. Louis paved the way for all of us for just everything. I still listen to him all the time, hoping one day I could ever move an audience like that. There’s a recording of him touring in Europe in 1935, you’d think it was the Beatles, people are getting so crazy. Also his small group recordings with Duke Ellington are masterpieces.
LCC: Any plans to take this band on the road?
LA: Well, in the coming years I plan to work this band at every opportunity. I believe in this band, best one I ever had. We’ll do some touring around the east coast, maybe up to see my Canadian brothers and sisters…also working on a Spain tour for later this year.
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